A leaked report from the Commons education committee confirms that the nursery voucher scheme, which goes national on April 1, is threatening the future of many playgroups and private nurseries. Lucy Hodges reports on their impact in one local authority
Swathed in scarlet sweatshirts, the three-year-olds at Eastbury Farm pre-school, Northwood, in Hertfordshire, were blissfully unaware of the adult battle swirling around them. They got on with painting and sticking their Mother's Day cards, secure in the belief that they would be painting and sticking something else tomorrow and the day after that, and probably sitting next to the same friends and talking to the same grown-ups.
What they didn't know was that their playgroup is threatened with closure, along with many others around the country, as a result of the introduction of nursery vouchers andor the expansion of nursery education. For 18 years the pre-school has been occupying a little corner of Eastbury Farm primary school, taking 31 three and four-year-olds before they join the reception class. In September it is expected to move or be forced to shut down because Eastbury Farm primary is opening a nursery class for 26 four-year-olds.
"Everything is terribly up in the air," says supervisor Annie Munns. "It is very distressing for the parents, because they don't know what's going to happen, particularly to their three-year-olds."
Behind the uncertainty lies Hertfordshire's long-established policy of building up nursery places, effectively at the expense of playgroups. The hung Lib-Lab administration which came to power at the last local elections aims to accelerate that process with its "Nursery for All at Four" scheme, the jewel in its education crown.
But the Government's introduction of nursery vouchers has further complicated things by creating competition between schools and playgroups for voucher money. Co-operation has been replaced by suspicion and, in some cases, downright hostility. Relationships that were once good have turned sour, according to the Pre-School Learning Alliance, which represents playgroups. "We do need to keep remembering the children's best interests in all this," says Sally Orr, county fieldworker for the alliance.
A difficult situation was made worse when the Education Secretary, Gillian Shephard, unexpectedly announced that she was calling in for examination all of the county's plans for new nursery classes this year.
That was an unusual thing to do. The effect will be to postpone full implementation of Hertfordshire's Nursery for All at Four policy, due to come into effect next month with the start of vouchers. "It will mean more than 1,000 parents will not be able to have local nursery places for their children," says Bob Mays, Labour chairman of the education committee. "They will have to go further afield to find other schools or they will have to use the private sector, which is presumably one of Mrs Shephard's objectives. "
The Education Secretary refused to see a delegation from Hertfordshire, but schools minister Robin Squire wrote to the county's MPs, all of them Tory, to explain the decision to review Hertfordshire's expansion plans. Six of the proposals were for expansion of voluntary schools, he explained, which the Education Secretary is required by law to examine. In addition, there had been objections from the public to two of the proposals for regular county schools. Mrs Shephard would also have to review those.
"It was decided that all the proposals the county plans for 37 schools this year should be considered together so that ministers could be satisfied that decisions on those proposals which fell automatically to the Secretary of State would not be prejudiced," Mr Squire wrote.
He also anticipated the charge that his political opponents were bound to make, namely that, by reviewing the plans, the Government was delaying implementation of these new nursery places in county schools. Mr Squire blamed Hertfordshire for being late in publishing its proposals, an allegation the county rejects.
The council suspects darker motives. It wonders whether Mrs Shephard does not like its innovative scheme for integrating nursery and primary admissions, which entails awarding primary places more than a year in advance of take-up and, at the same time, offering a nursery place at an attached nursery or linked nursery. Frances Button, leader of the Conservative education group, sees no hidden agenda behind Robin Squire's letter. But there are details of Hertfordshire's nursery programme she doesn't like, notably the linking of nursery and reception admissions which she thinks will lead to rigidity and unnecessary bureaucracy.
"It is very controversial," she says. "For a summer-born child, it means applying for a place when that child is only two-and-a-half. It puts pressure on parents to make decisions about their children extremely early, and new parents coming into the area when their children are older will be handicapped. "
A strong supporter of vouchers, Mrs Button believes their introduction in Hertfordshire has forced the council to become more efficient, and given parents more choice. Authorities have had to examine what they are providing, she argues. Her county was funding 1,098 empty places, which meant more than Pounds 1 million was going to waste. Vouchers have forced it to redistribute places - to close some and expand others - according to demand from parents.
Not surprisingly, education chairman Bob Mays does not see it that way. For him vouchers are an "administrative nightmare". They have forced him to cut places in some schools and "grow" places in others. Without vouchers the county would have continued to expand nursery provision painlessly. "Vouchers have had the effect of reducing opportunity for some parents," he says.
Mr Mays and the rest of the Labour group are anticipating a Labour victory in the coming General Election, so they believe vouchers will be short-lived - introduced in April and gone in a year's time. They envisage no special difficulties in unscrambling a system which has just made local authority planning more difficult.
Meanwhile, the question mark still hangs over Eastbury Farm pre-school. Jim Dalton, the official in charge of planning nurseries in Hertfordshire, hopes to keep the unit going. "The education authority is working with the school and the playgroup to find a way to enable it to continue," he says. "In many other locations across the county, a nursery classroom used for part of the day can be occupied by the playgroup for the rest of the time."
A well-known example of co-operation is provided by Summercroft infants in Bishop's Stortford, where the school and the playgroup have decided to collaborate rather than compete, with the result that the pre-school has stayed put, at least for now.
Mrs Button regards Summercroft as a paragon of good practice. "I very much hope Eastbury Farm pre-school does survive because it has provided an excellent service in that area for so long," she says. "I am very concerned that there doesn't seem to be the sort of flexible approach which I had hoped for. "